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It began innocently enough. Given my liberal Democratic views and my instinctive dislike for our incumbent president, a political biography of George W. Bush was literally the last thing on my mind as I arrived at Dulles International for a transatlantic flight. With an unfinished bodice ripper from my last domestic flight held firmly in hand, I thought I was set for reading material. Nonetheless, the book kiosks at Dulles are tempting, and the wait for an international flight is long . . . so, off I went to browse the offerings.
I love reading Molly Ivins' work. She's a marvelous writer with a talent for combining the discussion of serious issues with a healthy infusion of humor. I first encountered her sassy, sarcastic political commentary when I was a newlywed living in Dallas, which was many-many years in the past. When I saw Ivins' name above the title Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, I burst into peals of laughter. Here was a political biography of Dubya I could actually bear to read, all the while recognizing that what I would take as bitter truths regarding Bush the Younger would be delivered with the proverbial grain of salt. Ivins' irreverent humor would see me through. All this was before 9-11 and Iraq, when laughter and George Dubya were still not only possible, but often appropriate.
My encounter with Shrub would not disappoint me--at least not as far as Ivins and her co-author, Lou Dubose, were concerned. Declaring both their credentials and their biases, Ivins and Dubose delved relentlessly into the public life of George W. Bush. This book stands as a key work for both those who admire George W. and for those who don't.
In prose that is often scathing, sometimes sympathetic, and always couched in a down-home Texas flavor, Ivins and Dubose deliver a thought-provoking portrait of the man who has become our 43rd president. They also depict a man who, if measured by a standard proclaiming that even the appearance of impropriety cannot be tolerated, will be scampering about in what his father once described as "deep doo-doo."
Before the tragic events of 9-11 put criticism of Dubya on the back burner, the themes raised in Shrub were beginning to be heard more frequently as the honeymoon period for the new president rushed to a screeching halt. Now that the whys and wherefores that led to Iraq are so much on the public mind, these themes are again being aired as the nation and the world struggles to understand where we are and how we got here.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Item 1: George W.'s Status as a Veteran ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Dubya's tenure in the Texas Air National Guard has been examined both by the Texas media and by the courts in a tangentially related civil suit. What is patently clear is that George the Younger got a bye on Vietnam precisely because his standing as the son of an influential family bought him a safe posting that was unlikely to see combat. In fairness, many other sons of powerful families took the same path.
George the Younger apparently acquired his weekend warrior status through the intervention of a close family friend, Sid Adger, who phoned the Speaker of the Texas House to secure a spot for then-Congressman Bush's draft eligible son. Despite a waiting list of 100,000 applicants, including dozens of already trained pilots who often waited as long as 18 months for a position in the Texas Air Guard, the younger Bush applied and was accepted within a matter of days. After scoring the absolute bare minimum on the qualifying exam, George then nabbed one of two available slots as a pilot and learned to fly on the Guard's dime.
Thanks to the fact that Adger had died by the time this issue hit the courts and the newspapers in 1999, both Bushes were able to dance to the tune of plausible deniability: yes, Adger may have called in the favor on behalf of the Bush family, they admitted, but neither father nor son had requested that favor.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Item 2: George W.'s Ventures in the Oil Business ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
George W. Bush entered the oil business in Midland, Texas, in 1975, using $18,000 left over from his educational trust fund as seed money. George eventually set up a series of shell businesses, all of which lost money for their investors. Nonetheless, when he finally left the oil business in 1990, he did so with nearly a million dollars in hand, making most of that money on an insider liquidation of stock that did not include the required notification to the Securities and Exchange Commission. George did not file with the SEC until 8 months after the relevant deadline had passed. George's investors were left holding the near-empty bag.
Throughout his period of involvement in the oil business, George W. sought his backers among his father's powerful eastern friends, many of whom invested substantial funds in what were clearly dubious business deals. Dubya's chief assets at the time appear to have been (1) his ability to offer investors large tax write-offs for their business losses and (2) the fact that his father held high national office, including Director of the CIA, Vice President, and President of the United States.
As Ivins and Dubose concluded: "If [Ken] Starr hadn't so abused the power of his office, Congress might have reauthorized the independent-counsel statute, leaving the door open for a court-appointed prosecutor to investigate a president's son who flipped his oil companies faster than a Texas S&L can daisy-chain a Dallas condo; . . . unloaded his company stock before the stock plummeted; and walked away from the whole mess with more money than Bill Clinton ever dreamed of making on a little real estate deal now known as Whitewater."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Item 3: George W.'s Dealings with the Christian Right ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
In the late 1970s, George W. entered his first foray into politics and was defeated by conservative Democrat Kent Hance. Bush lost his race to Hance in large part because the latter played on George's rich-kid background and his less-than-demonstrative Christianity. In short, Bush was "out poor-boyed and out-Christianed" by his opponent.
By 1994, when George ran for his first term as governor, the Christian Right had taken over the Texas Republican Party and Bush had learned to speak their language with a Texas drawl. Dubya managed to distance himself from the country-club Republicanism of his father, while he simultaneously succeeded in wooing the Christian Right. Speaking at evangelical gatherings and wearing his born-again Christianity like a banner, he opposed abortion and supported school vouchers. As important, with his name and his resemblance to his father, he offered the Christian Right a candidate who could win.
But though George has talked the talk of the Christian Right, he has not always walked the walk. On the issue of abortion, for example, his platform and his public statements have always been "pro-life" (an irony when one considers the number of executions that took place in Texas prisons under Geroge's watch). When anti-abortion bills came to the Texas legislature, however, he did very little to muster the troops to secure passage. With regard to what he could or should try to accomplish in office, George tends to be more pragmatic than his Christian Right supporters. In the opinion of Ivins and Dubose, this failure to follow through with an appropriate degree of zeal may yet lead to a confrontation between Bush and his more conservative Christian supporters.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Item 4: George W.'s "Compassionate Conservatism" ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I don't know about the rest of the American electorate, but this aspect of George W.'s rhetoric has always troubled me. I understand "compassionate," and I understand "conservative." But when used together to describe the Bush agenda? Well, it just doesn't make sense. As a case in point, take welfare reform. Until October 1, 1999, the total welfare benefit to a Texas mother with two children was $188 per month (and is now $201 per month--or $2412 per year). Not only did Bush fail to support this meager $13 increase (he wanted the money for a property-tax cut), he helped end an allowance of $38 per month for each additional child for families with more than two children.
Compare the situation of these Texas welfare mothers with the following scenario in which Bush personally realized millions from the largesse of Texas taxpayers: In the early 90s when Bush and his fellow investors in the Texas Rangers ball club needed a new stadium for their team, they convinced the City of Arlington to pick up the construction tab of $191 million, convinced the Texas legislature to create a sports authority with quasi-government powers, and uprooted an upper-middle-class neighborhood on the 13 acres required for the stadium complex. Homeowners who were reluctant to sell at rock-bottom prices were dislodged by invoking the power of imminent domain. (Note: A Texas court later ruled that the sports authority, which had acted on behalf of the Ranger organization, had behaved improperly. The resulting fines and restitution were imposed on the sports authority itself, not on the Rangers' owners. Therefore these monies also came from the public coffers.) In 1998 when then-Governor Bush sold his interest in the Rangers, he realized more than $15 million on a $640,000 investment--a profit collected by a sitting governor and made possible through public subsidies lavished on a private business arrangement.
~~~~~~~~~~ Postscript ~~~~~~~~~~
Once again, I repeat for the record that my personal political and philosophical differences with our sitting president are profound. That aside, all who are still reading this review know that we live in an age in which every aspect of a public official's past and present are fodder for the scandal mills. If the "evidence" provided by Ivins and Dubose is even remotely accurate, I wouldn't want to be in George W. Bush's shoes. In the past few years we have witnessed a dramatic escalation in the tendency to go for the jugular by the political opposition. If moderate and liberal Democrats in today's evenly divided Federal legislature are inclined to follow the example set by their conservative Republican colleagues during the administration just ended, it will be rough 4 years for George and his family.
One final note, based on the excesses of the Clinton years: I personally hope that the behavior of many Republicans under Clinton will not be repeated by Democrats under Bush. While I may want to learn the truth about our president's public behavior, I don't want to know about his personal life. If George W. Bush has seriously violated established rules of conduct in either the business or political arena, I'd like to see the public so informed. Once that's been done, however, I hope our national legislature will leave well enough alone and let the electorate itself determine the proper response. Believe me, the voice of public opinion is loud enough for our representatives to hear our wishes--if only they can stop telling us what we ought to think long enough to listen.
It seems to be a very interesting book, it is amazing how contacts and networking can push you. I hope I can find the book here. Thanks for your review.
broomari 24.11.2003 22:10
torr 22.11.2003 14:42
An interesting review of what is evidently a revealing book. GWB's is clearly dubyous record indeed. As the man himself said: "If you say you're going to do something and don't do it, that's trustworthiness." Best wishes, Duncan